Wrongfully incarcerated for 18 years, Steven Avery received $25,000 in compensation from the Wisconsin Claims Board Thursday.
Avery, who was sentenced in 1986 to 32 years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman on a Manitowoc County beach but was last year proven innocent, was represented free of charge by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a group of University of Wisconsin law professors and students who litigate innocence claims on prisoners’ behalf.
In addition to the $25,000, the Claims Board awarded Avery $23,792 for attorneys’ fees from previous efforts to overturn his conviction. The board denied, however, a request to reimburse the Innocence Project with $15,000, and it took no action on a request for an additional $1 million in compensation for Avery.
The $25,000 in damages was the maximum the board could award Avery under state law, according to Mike Prentiss, spokesman for board member Sen. Scott Fitzgerald. In ignoring the $1 million request, the board referred the case to the state legislature, which would have to change a state statute to allow for greater damages.
A commission headed by state Rep. Mark Gundrum is currently considering plans to help prevent a reprise of Avery’s situation.
“The commission is looking into cases like [Avery's] to make recommendations to make this less likely to occur and change the way the state handles them,” Prentiss said, adding Fitzgerald was waiting to see the commission’s findings before endorsing any change in state law.
UW law professor Keith Findley, one of the Innocence Project’s co-directors, said it is obvious a change must be made to allow those wrongfully convicted to claim more in damages.
“This case demonstrates that the statute is inadequate,” Findley said. “We’re pleased that the board moved quickly to award the statutory maximum … but [$25,000] comes nowhere near compensating him for the years he’s lost of his life.”
Findley said the board’s refusal to repay the Innocence Project’s costs — since the charge was not out of Avery’s pocket — is understandable.
“This project was never about funding the Innocence Project,” Findley said. “The main thing is to find adequate compensation for Steven Avery.”
DNA evidence successfully exonerated Avery from the rape conviction in 2003. By the time he was released, his wife had divorced him and two of his children — twin daughters less than a week old at the time of his imprisonment — had turned 18 years old.
Destitute following his release, Avery turned to the Innocence Project, where Findley, professor John Pray and several law students agreed to represent him pro bono.
Findley indicated the Innocence Project will now be active in working with the legislature to change the “terribly outdated and unfair” statute preventing greater compensation.
“The state really can do much better,” he said. “We’re hopeful and believe the state legislature will step in and fix the injustice that is created by this statute.”
– James Davison contributed to this report